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When the Apostle Paul visited Athens and addressed their pagan philosophers in the Areopagus (“Mars Hill”), he said: “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

At the recent Bethlehem College & Seminary Pastors Conference I led a panel interviewing Joe Rigney and Don Carson. I asked Carson about this text being used to defend the notion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

Here was his response:

The argument that some have put forward is that Paul does not in that address say, “We’re worshipping entirely different gods here,” but, “What you ignorantly worship, that I declare to you.”

But put it in context. A text without a context becomes a pre-text for a proof-text.

When they are speaking of an “unknown god,” it’s in a polytheistic context, not a context of monotheism. And the reason why they have an altar to an unknown god is because they live their lives in fear with respect to what the various gods can do. You propitiate the gods with appropriate sacrifices so that you can have a fat baby or a safe trip to Rome or whatever it is you’re asking for. And there might be some god out there who’s really quite nasty tempered so you offer a sacrifice to him, too (or her, as the case may be—there were goddesses as well as gods).

None of that is relevant to what Paul is saying. Paul is not saying, “This particular god is the God that I’m talking about.”

And even if it were, it scarcely applies to the Muslim world, where the Muslims do not say, “We don’t really know much about God, why don’t you fill the content for us.” Allah is not to them an unknown god. He is very known. And when I converse with my most serious Muslims friends—and I have some—they resent the notion that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. They think it’s a terrible distortion for Christians to say things like that. They think it’s an abomination, in fact, because you actually believe things like God having a Son—things like that. In fact, one Muslim country, Malaysia, had made it illegal for Christians and Muslims to use the same word, Allah, for God.

So this use of Acts 17:23, ripped out of its context, reflects a sold-out commitment to a kind of muddle-headed Western notion of tolerance that is not thinking clearly about what Paul is saying in the context. He is saying that “what you ignorantly worship this I declare to you,” not because he is making an ontological statement of identity but because he is stressing their ignorance.

You can watch or listen to the whole hour-long discussion here, where we covered a number of topics (including voting for presidential candidates).


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27 thoughts on “D. A. Carson on Whether Acts 17:23 Can Be Used in the Muslim-Christian Same-God Discussion”

  1. Curt Day says:

    The use of Acts 17:23 in answering the question raised by Larycia Hawkins’ statements is not a ripping out of context. Rather, when people vehemently disagree with her on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, her statements are usually ripped out of context and put into the assumed context of those who disagree with her.

    In the context that there is only one God who created all things and who is the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob Hawkins is correct; we worship the same God. Just as Paul ackonowledges a partial knowing of God by the Greeks, though certainly not an adequate one, one could say the same of Muslims when they ackinowledge the one God of Abraham. See, the issue regarding Hawkins’ statement isn’t whether there are no differences between the God Muslims worship from the God Christians worship. Nor is the question whether the Muslim worship of God is adequate. The issue regarding Hawkins’ statement is whether there is some continuity between the God whom Muslims worship with the God whom Christians worship.

    Finally, what is wrong with the “western” notion of tolerance? Certainly, it is wrong to use the need for tolerance to determine if Christians and Muslims worship the same God. And the need for tolerance, that is tolerance in society, is not ‘muddled.’ But the need for tolerance will be so misused if those who are theologically correct do promote it.

    1. Hermonta Godwin says:

      I dont even think it is a question of is there a continuity between the Muslim God and the Christian God but instead what kind of solidarity (if any) comes from that sameness. If one grants that they worship the same God but they do it inadequately or falsely and therefore are still hellbound and those who hold to the Muslim teachings are trouble for Christians. We must remember that the background was a rebuking of Trump’s call to stop Muslim immigration. Even if we grant everything that she could want, her conclusions of solidarity dont follow.

      1. Curt Day says:

        Hermonta,
        Let’s suppose what you say is true and that there is no solidarity between Christians and Muslims. does it follow that we should not care if Muslims are discriminated against or attacked?

        1. Hermonta Godwin says:

          Curt,
          Discrimination is simply saying that items in group 1 are different than items in group 2 etc. There is nothing inherently nefarious about the word or it being properly applied to a situation. To attempt to say that discrimination is improper concerning the case at hand, you would need to proceed with an argument that the two groups are in fact equivalent and that saying that they are differences is false, evil etc. If you wish to do such, then I would be happy to engage.

    2. steve hays says:

      i) Notice that Curt Day doesn’t actually engage, much less refute, Carson’s exegetical argument. Rather, he simply denies it and then asserts his own interpretation, which doesn’t fit the context, for reasons Carson spelled out.

      ii) Muslims don’t acknowledge the God who actually appeared to Abraham. They aren’t operating with OT history, but a Koranic God revealing himself to a Koranic Abraham.

      1. Curt Day says:

        Steve,
        I didn’t comment on his exegetical comment because I found it to be irrelevant. But if you want a comment on it, I think Carson goes to far. Paul’s referring to the unknown god, regardless of the polytheistic context, doesn’t negate the continuity between the object of their worship and subject of Paul’s proclamation.

        But more importantly, before determining whether Acts 17:23 can be used to justify Hawkins’ claim, one has to look at the context of her claim in order to rightly interpret here statement.

        My guess is that too many of us have a fear of acknowledging any continuity with Islam. And some use that as a justification for either attacking Muslims or ignoring such attacks.

        1. steve hays says:

          i) I found your own comment irrelevant, so I guess we’re even.

          ii) You’re assuming there’s continuity between an idol to an unknown god of paganism and the God of Scripture. But there is no continuity. The idol is just a way for pagans to hedge their bets. Paul simply uses that to break the ice.

          iii) The context of her claim is that she bought into the religious pluralism of Catholic modernism.

          iv) You then impute untoward motives to those who don’t share your outlook. Of course, we could just as well impute untoward motives to you.

    3. DL says:

      Curt, I don’t buy that line of thinking, because while it is true that Muslims recognize Allah as a creator god, I do not think it is possible to equate their version of a creator god as Yahweh. Muslims re-write the Biblical testimony, starting with creation, Adam, Even, the fall, etc. from verse one to re-encapsulate “their god”. What you propose is akin to saying that Kabbalahists worship the same god as the Israelites.
      It can be an apologetic starting point to consider, but their entire religion and worldview is predicated on an opposing theology.

      The only thing I would grant is that in a Muslim country where individuals have not been exposed to the Gospel or Biblical training, it may be possible for an individual, who has not embraced the Muslim faith in its fullness, to ignorantly worship their god in a way that would be similar to the Mars Hill version.

  2. Curt Day says:

    Steve,
    Sorry, but Romans 1 could be quoted here to challenge your first point. That people know God through creation and choose to worship something else means that they could be putting some of what they know about God into their idols. Evidence of this is when they attribute to their idols characteristics that only God has. And your assertion that Paul is merely breaking the ice is a possible explanation, but cannot be taken as certain. I don’t believe that your assertion is supported exegetically but it could be an explanation.

    Second, have you read her theological statement as well as the context of her statement? Her first concern regarding stating that Muslims worship the same God is not from Catholic modernism, but because of possible or actual revenge taken on Muslims because of the acts of some terrorists. Remember that what preceded her statements was her wearing the hijab. And if you read her theological statement, she answers the question of whether Muslisms worship the same God as Christians with both a yes and a no pending the context of the question. Her concerns is to justify showing solidarity with Muslims. And that solidarity is based on what we have in common–and we do have some things in common.

    Finally, I speculated, not imputed. I clearly stated that some have a fear of Muslims, I did not state that all did regardless of their view of Hawkins’ statement. So please correctly represent my statements as well as the context in which Hawkins made her statements,

    1. steve hays says:

      i) Rom 1 is the polar opposite. Idolatry is suppressing and supplanting the natural knowledge of God. Replacing that with an anti-God substitute.

      ii) She cites Vatican II and Pope John-Paul II as influential sources of her theology regarding the same God controversy.

      iii) She only takes actions to express solidarity with Muslims, and not with the victims of Muslims.

  3. Curt Day says:

    Steve,
    Idolatry is more than just surpassing, it is attributing to others the characteristics that belong to God. Which is why Paul could say in Acts 17:23 the unknown god they worship in ignorance, regardless of the polytheistic context, is what Paul proclaimed to them.

    Yes, John Paul and Vatican did infulence her theology, but that provides a context for her statements on the Eucharist. In addition, she cited other influences. The persecution of Muslims provides the context for her claims that Muslims and Christians worship the same God as well as saying that Muslims are our brothers and sisters. In addition, she also provides a context in which she can assert that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God nor can we call them borthers and sisters. This context not only applies to Muslims who have been attacked, it is meant to prevent future attacks. To reduce the context to Catholic influences ignores a tremendous amount of information regarding why she said what she did.

    1. steve hays says:

      You need to learn the concept of dramatic irony. There’s more than once audience for Paul’s speech. There’s the pagan Athenians, and there’s Luke’s Christian audience. Paul’s statement is tongue-in-cheek. The reader would know that because of how the incident is introduced (Paul is incensed by the idols), and Paul’s use of a word that’s a double entendre (pious, superstitious). The Athenians hear one thing, but the reader hears another.

      1. Curt Day says:

        Steve,
        Regardless of the concept of dramatic irony, I don’t any exegetical evidence showing that Paul is using the line in Acts 17:23 as an ice breaker. Not that it couldn’t be true, but there is no justification for concluding that was the case.

        1. steve hays says:

          Sure there’s justification. It’s segue to his presentation. A way to gain a hearing. You need to bone up on the basics of ancient rhetoric.

          1. Curt Day says:

            Steve,
            What you are saying is that Paul didn’t mean to say what he said because he was trying to break the ice. A seque doesn’t imply that what is said is not meant.

  4. steve hays says:

    “Yes, John Paul and Vatican did infulence her theology, but that provides a context for her statements on the Eucharist.”

    Wrong. That was explicitly in the context of her claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

    “This context not only applies to Muslims who have been attacked, it is meant to prevent future attacks.”

    Attacks on Muslims in the US are statistically nonexistent, isolated events. By contrast, consider attacks by Muslims. But she ignores that because she’s only interested in taking politically correct fashionable positions.

    1. Curt Day says:

      No, the context was the response she was required to give to Wheaton when they questioned her statements in the first place. Only the Eucharist statements draw on Catholic theology. The fact that we are all born of Adam and thus are all brothers and sisters isimply shows what follows from the premise. I know Reformed theologians who would agree that particular statement of hers.

      Likewise, that Muslims and Christians are monotheists and that they worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, regardless of any disparity in their historical views of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, means that within that context, Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Again, it isn’t Catholic theology that leads to that conclusion, it’s what we see in the definition of implication. If two religions are monotheistic and identify with the God who is the God of Abraham, it follows that they worship the same God.

      The big objection to the latter statement comes from those Conservative Christians who speak from another context. That context consists of needing to approach God through Jesus Christ. And within that context, Hawkins fully agrees with them. Thus, what we see in those who object to her statements is a rigidity in recognizing different contexts for her statements. And that is what you are expressing. You can only recognize the Roman Church context for her statements since it is the context for her statements on the Eucharist. You are having trouble recognizing other contexts, something she has no trouble in since under different contexts she agrees with you in that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.

      1. steve hays says:

        Curt, your claim is demonstrably false. One Facebook she said:

        “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

        The context is not eucharistic.

        Likewise, in her 12/17/15 “Theological Statement,” she said she was “guided by” “post-Vatican II Roman Catholic tradition, as expressed in both encyclical form (e.g. Nostra Aetate 3.1) and Pontifical writings (e.g. John-Paul II, ‘Crossing the Threshold of Hope’)” in reference to “we worship the same God.”

        That is not eucharistic.

        Why are you so committed to misrepresenting the context of her statements in the teeth of the public record to the contrary?

        1. Curt Day says:

          That Pope France confirmed what she siad does not imply that Catholic Modernism is the context of her statements. What you missed there is the reference ‘people of the Book’ is a term coined by Muslims, not Catholics, to describe Jews and Christians. So from that should we conclude that Islam is the context of her statements?

          Why she had to make her statements in the first place was because the school questioned her about her expressing solidarity with Muslims by wearing a hijab. Why she was expressing that solidarity was because of the fear of actual or potential violence Muslims would receive because of the actions of groups like ISIS.

          Note her statement and the people with whom she mentioned as guides:


          I am guided by evangelical theologians like Timothy George, John Stackhouse, Scot McKnight, and Miroslav Volf, as well as the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic tradition, as expressed in both encyclical form (e.g. Nostra Aetate 3.1) and Pontifical writings (e.g. John Paul II, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”). Like them I acknowledge that the statement “we worship the same God” is a simultaneous “yes” and “no” to the question of whether Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) turn to the same object of worship, namely, the “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:6).

          So she mentions the Pope in what you quoted and Vatican II in her theological statement, she also mentions evangelicals who influenced her. Her influences are eclectic, not Roman Catholic alone. And yet, you take one quote and claim that the context of her speech is Catholic Modernism, but you say nothing about the evangelicals who also influenced her. Such is either not a fair evaluation of the evidence or speaking from an ignorance of evidence that was clearly documented in her statement. Her statement can be found using the link below:

          http://www.christianpost.com/news/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-theological-statement-muslims-christians-worship-same-god-controversy-154375/

      2. steve hays says:

        “Likewise, that Muslims and Christians are monotheists and that they worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, regardless of any disparity in their historical views of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, means that within that context, Christians and Muslims worship the same God. ”

        That’s as nonsensical as claiming that ancient Gnostics worship the same Jesus as Christians because Gnostic Gospels have their own stories about Jesus. But the Jesus of the Gnostic Gospels is not the Jesus of the canonical Gospels.

        You can’t swap out Yahweh and swap out the OT Abraham, swap in Allah and the Koranic Abraham, then pretend it’s the same cast of characters.

        1. Curt Day says:

          Steve,
          do you really want to compare the disparity between Gnostics and Christians in world views and descriptions of Christ with the disparity between Muslims and Christians on the identity of God?

          Why is it that you seem antagonistic to recgonize that there is some, but not enough, continuity between how Muslims see God and how Christians see God? After all, if you read Hawkins’ statement about whether Muslism and us believe in the same God, she clearly says that it depends on the context. From an evangelical context, the answer is clearly ‘no.’ But from being monotheists and believing in the same God as Abraham, she says ‘yes.’ And quite frankly, since in this context she is speaking in a limited sphere, she is correct. She is correct here just as she is when, from the context that we all come from Adam and Eve, she calls Muslims her brothers and sisters. Again, from an evangelical context, she wouldn’t do that.

          So it seems to me that those who disagree with her are not able to switch contexts in evaluating her statements.

          BTW, Yahweh’ is a name that the Hebrews never used to call God because His name was regarded as being too holy for sinners to say. The word Allah is not a special name for God as the Hebrew word ‘Yahweh’ is. Rather, Allah simply means ‘the God.’ Its Greek Equivalent would be ho theos, which means God or the God.

          1. steve hays says:

            “do you really want to compare the disparity between Gnostics and Christians in world views and descriptions of Christ with the disparity between Muslims and Christians on the identity of God?”

            Sure. Next question?

            “Why is it that you seem antagonistic to recgonize that there is some, but not enough, continuity between how Muslims see God and how Christians see God?”

            Actually, I’ve said very little about that one way or the other. Most of what I’ve said is to correct your tenacious misrepresentation of Acts 17:23 and your persistent misrepresentation of Hawkins.

            “BTW, Yahweh’ is a name that the Hebrews never used to call God because His name was regarded as being too holy for sinners to say.”

            You cite no evidence that the Hebrews never used to call God “Yahweh”. Instead, you are backdating a later development in Judaism. Your statement is anachronistic.

            “The word Allah is not a special name for God as the Hebrew word ‘Yahweh’ is. Rather, Allah simply means ‘the God.’ Its Greek Equivalent would be ho theos, which means God or the God.”

            That’s a typically uncomprehending remark that defenders of Hawkins recycle, which demonstrates that they have no deep grasp of the actual issues.

            “Allah” doesn’t have a uniform connotation. It depends on the who uses it. If Arab Christians use it, they do so to denote the God of Christian theism, but if Muslims use it, they do so to denote the God of Islamic theism.

            What “Allah” refers to depends on the intent or concept of the speaker.

            Your comparison with Greek usage backfires, since theos clearly has a different referent if the speaker is a pagan rather than Josephus or St. Paul. Even if they use the same word for Zeus or Yahweh, that’s hardly coreferential. Don’t presume to correct others when your own grasp of the issues is so abysmally superficial.

  5. Curt Day says:

    Steve,
    If you want to compare the disparity between Gnosticism and Christianity, go ahead and start.

    Second, if you think I have misrepresented Hawkins, you will have to give more detail. If you note above, I have mentioned the context of her words as well as quoted her more extensively than you have. You have focused solely on her scant references to Catholic sources without making the distinction between borrowing from and following. For example, I agree with the Pope’s criticisms of today’s capitalism. But borrowing his references to Capitalism does not make me a follower of the Pope.

    Hawkins has drawn from both evangelical and Catholic sources in order to respond to social problem. And yet, the only context for her words which you have acknowledged here are her citing of Catholic sources. Sorry, but such an approach is very selective and does not produce an overall understanding of the context in which she writes.

    BTW, my referring to the name Muslims use for God’s name come from people who understand Arabic and I’ve heard them long before Hawkins’ statements became and isue. Allah is not a special name for God like Yahweh is. That the name, ‘the Lord,’ adonai in the original language, is often substituted for Yahweh. In fact, I’ve seen this in the writing of one of my Jewish friends as well as some other Jews, the English word God is often written as G-d because the Jews regarded the name of God as so holy that they dare not try to say it. The name Yahweh actually comes from how God identified himself to Moses as ‘I am,’ Moses was to tell the Hebrews who sent him (see http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Names_of_G-d/YHVH/yhvh.html ).

    As for the word Allah, it means ‘the God’ (see http://www.britannica.com/topic/Allah ) and such in Greek would be translated as ho theos–meaning God. Here, you are not speaking out of knowledge but because you seem to have a view of Hawkins that does not come from reading her, but from reading what a select group of others have written about her. THAt you change the God being referred to based on who says it does not make your case since both are referring to the one God who created everything. There is the continuity that both believe in one God who created and sustains all things. You cannot erase that continuity. And, as Hawkins said, when we insert soteriology and such into the discussion, then it is true that Muslims and Christians don’t worship the same God. Again, the problem you might be having is the ability to recognize multiple sets of contexts. You seem to recognize only one.

    Finally, if you want to continue the conversation, you can stop with the insults. This isn’t some supremacy test. It is place to share information. However, if you continue to try to speak down, you can talk to yourself. And until then, please read all of what Hawkins has written before judging her.

  6. steve hays says:

    “If you want to compare the disparity between Gnosticism and Christianity, go ahead and start.”

    I hardly need to reinvent the wheel. Lots of standard treatments.

    “Second, if you think I have misrepresented Hawkins, you will have to give more detail.”

    Actually, I don’t need to give more detail. What I gave was entirely sufficient to prove the point.

    “You have focused solely on her scant references to Catholic sources…”

    Ironically, she cites two Protestant scholars who disagree with her, as I’ve documented on a post at my own blog.

    You then reiterate your confusions about Allah. You need to learn the difference between the meaning of words and the meaning of concepts.

    Likewise, you repeat your anachronism about Yahweh, as if modern Jewish scruples tell us anything about OT Judaism.

    “you seem to have a view of Hawkins that does not come from reading her, but from reading what a select group of others have written about her.”

    Actually, I quoted her verbatim.

    “Finally, if you want to continue the conversation, you can stop with the insults.”

    It’s not as if you’re doing me a favor. You’re a social justice warrior who swarms evangelical blogs like TGC and Denny Burke. My comments aren’t directed at you. You’re just a foil. My comments are for the benefit of TGC readers.

  7. Curt Day says:

    Steve,
    Again, if you want to compare the disparities, please start.

    But let’s get to the main point. Did I misrepresent her statements. In my response referring to her scant references to Catholic theology, you wrote the following:


    Ironically, she cites two Protestant scholars who disagree with her, as I’ve documented on a post at my own blog.

    First, by itself, what does that prove? I could easily mention 2 protestant scholars with whom I disagree on many topics, such does not make me Catholic. IN addition, she wrote in her statement (one source for her statement can be found at http://www.christianpost.com/news/wheaton-college-larycia-hawkins-theological-statement-muslims-christians-worship-same-god-controversy-154375/ ):


    I am guided by evangelical theologians like Timothy George, John Stackhouse, Scot McKnight, and Miroslav Volf, as well as the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic tradition, as expressed in both encyclical form (e.g. Nostra Aetate 3.1) and Pontifical writings (e.g. John Paul II, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”). Like them I acknowledge that the statement “we worship the same God” is a simultaneous “yes” and “no” to the question of whether Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) turn to the same object of worship, namely, the “God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”

    So she mentions 4 evangelical scholars with whom she agrees. So what is the implication of mentioning two with whom she disagrees?

    Second, her answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ And she then procededs to identify the contexts that determines each answer. In terms of the Trinity and soteriology, she definitely says ‘no.’ Do you disagree with here on that?

    But in terms of worshipping one God who is the Father of the historical characters of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob without other constraints, such as the trinity and soteriology, she answers ‘no.’ So to her context is important. Does it matter that there is some disparity between the OT Abraham and sons and the one in the Koran as long as they are referring to the same historical people? If so, explain why.

    As for your verbatim quotes, what you’ve quoted is not the only thing she wrote. So how is it that you have come to your conclusions based on all that she has written?

    As for your other statements, again, if you want to continue with the insult, you will find that you will be talking to yourself. That is especially true when you use insults instead of addressing specific points and you fail to address the documentation and points I’ve made about the names Allah and Yahweh. As for me being “social justice warrior,” does that mean that you can avoid specifics when answering? Does me being such a person mean I am wrong about Hawkins? See, for as long as you give insults instead of addressing specific points, you show that you are not interested in a serious discussion.

  8. steve hays says:

    Your “documentation” about Yahweh is hopelessly anachronistic. The “point” you made about the name of Allah is a simply a rehash of a point I’ve refuted more than once.

  9. Curt Day says:

    Steve,
    You have refuted nothing. Refutations consist of more than mere assertions. They consist of a proper use of facts and logic. You have merely made some assertions declaring that you disagree and that includes your first sentence.

    Seeing that, I will end with this. The whole controvery over Hawkins’ statement revolves around one’s ability to recognize the different contexts in which one might make the statements Hawkins did. Those who rigidly hold to only one possible context for her statements will find that they actually agree with Hawkins on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God from a trinitarian or soteriology context. For it is in those contexts that Hawkins clearly says that Chritians and Muslims do not worship the same God. However, what such people refuse to see is that we can answer the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God without reference to the Trinity and soteriology. And the reason why that question came up, or the context for Hawkins’ statements, has everything to do Hawkins peceiving Muslims here as being at risk for hate crimes because of the recent terrorist attacks conducted by some Muslim terrorists. Her statements were not made because she wanted to discuss how some theological perspective would answer the question. The timing of her statements supports the notion that her fear for what Muslims might have to endure became the context of her statements on Muslims and Christians.

    Now the choice is yours as to how you want to see the issue

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